Illusions of Life and Death

Beautiful science as a means to cope with grief

Without blood flow pumped by the heart, the cells which make up our muscles, tissues, and nerves are deprived of the nutrients and oxygen needed to sustain their work. In very short order, the enzymes within the stagnant cells begin to eat away at the cell walls, eventually escaping their microscopic confines.

Myosin and actin, the proteins which slide along side each other to create muscle movement, lock in place without an energy source to propel them, resulting in rigor mortis. Further decay of soft tissues causes this matter to go through chemical reactions, turning once recognizable bodily material into elements like salts and gasses.

If a human body is left to decompose it will leave behind what is known to forensic science as a “cadaver decomposition island”. That is, a circle radiating out from the site where nutrients released into the soil dramatically alter the soil’s chemistry and leave a fingerprint of rich humus behind. The changes which lead to this nutrient transfer from body to soil begin fairly fast — As if the body has been waiting for the right conditions to under go a metamorphosis.

According to the laws of thermodynamics, energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only change forms. To stop and think about what this means is both beautiful and terrifying. It is true our bodies are made of stardust, but perhaps even more captivating is that we are all of the same energy, moving through the universe taking different forms, a continuous shape shift.

Neuroscience is still somewhat in its infancy with dramatic breakthroughs in the last few decades not putting us too much closer to understanding the complicated mechanics of the brain. The thing that keeps our whole body running — The thing that keeps us from shapeshifting into something different. But we have come to understand thoughts as a combination of electrical signals and chemical exchanges between neurons.

Basically, the thoughts you have in this moment are the same exchange of matter and energy that comprises your physical body and the world around you. During nuclear fusion within the sun, matter is exchanged for energy when hydrogen and helium nuclei collide at speeds of around 500 km/s within an environment vastly denser than lead, while axons in your brain move information at speeds up to 402 km/h, switching information from chemical to electrical in complex patterns.

The force of the sun’s nuclear reactions hail down on the earth in the form of photons, electromagnetic radiation — what we see as visible light. Adhering to both particle and wave properties, many photons do not end their journey when they hit the ground. They are responsible for the most important chemical process to our life here on earth: photosynthesis.

Algae, incased in plant cells, performs a beautiful reaction to light energy from the sun and converts it into organic matter like sugars, which the plant uses as energy to create more of itself. The matter which is the plant is then consumed by other life forms to be converted again into energy.

True, bacteria would still exist without photosynthesis, but the vast majority of trophic chains on our planet exist with this chemical process at their core. Save for a few types of bacteria which use chemosynthesis to process chemicals into organic compounds , life has built itself on this one exchange of energy — from a star 150 million km away — into matter through the microscopic work within plant cells.

In 1905, Albert Einstein released his theory of special relativity and the ubiquitous formula of E = mc2. This simple equation showed gravity to be of the same cloth as energy and gave the mathematical formula to exchange one for the other.

Massive boulders on mountain tops have potential energy in an earthquake and the cells of our bodies have potential energy stored in chemical bonds. Everything around us has a bank of energy, matter itself appears to be energy, or at least the two are capable of exchanging with each other.

It would seem then, that perhaps the question which has tugged at human hearts for so long — the question of where we go when we die — is less of a question, really. We don’t go anywhere and we came from everything. Perhaps the idea of the soul is redundant. Who we are may be as inseparable from our bodies as matter is from energy.

When contemplating mortality we are really musing on chemical reactions; The same beautiful dance between molecules, atoms, and elementary particles which gave us life as we know it and those which shall carry what was once a human into the next beautiful slip stream of existence.